The effect of Zajonc's social inhibition

The effect of Zajonc's social inhibition

We recently spoke in Psychoactive about how exposing ourselves to other people when performing a task can make our performance and results better. This effect is explained through Allport's social facilitation theory, a theory widely supported and studied. However, sometimes there can be a completely opposite effect in these situations, an effect that has completely negative consequences: today we talk about the effect of social inhibition.


  • 1 Starting from the theory of social facilitation
  • 2 But social facilitation was not always fulfilled
  • 3 The generalized impulse hypothesis
  • 4 Yerkes-Dodson Law

Starting from the theory of social facilitation

During most of the twentieth century, a popularly known effect was studied and confirmed: effect of social facilitation. It was Gordon Allport, a popular psychologist who delved deeply into the studies of personality, who shaped and conceptualized this theory that has remained to this day.

The social facilitation theory It is based on the positive consequences that occur when we perform a task surrounded by other people. This can occur through two effects that appear in different situations:

  • The effect of co-action: This effect occurs when we perform a task, such as doing some sport or playing an instrument that we handle well, accompanied by other people who do the same with us. In these cases, our homework performance tends to improve much more than if we do the homework alone.
  • The effect of the audience: It is the effect of improvement in the tasks that occur when we are performing an act in front of other people who are watching us. Both this effect and the previous one occur because our motivation increases, getting us to try harder and do a better job.

But social facilitation was not always fulfilled

Already in 1933, the researcher Pessin spoke of an opposite effect. When he studied the performance of several participants who had to memorize a difficult list of words, he realized that if these were observed by an audience the results were much worse.

Different studies supported these data that completely contradicted the effect of social facilitation and trying to study these differences, psychologist Robert Zajonc designed several experiments to evaluate people's performance, trying to reach a clear conclusion.

Thus, Zajonc designed simple and more complex tasks and observed how different participants performed them alone and in the company or presence of other people. Their results indicated how, when performing a simple task or a task that did not involve a great effort for the person because of their high training in it, the presence of other people made their performance improve much more than if they performed it alone. This was something quite well known in the field of social psychology that brought no news.

However, the results also indicated something new: when the tasks were complex or the participants did not have much practice carrying them out, the presence of other people made their performance much worse. Thus was born a theory of social inhibition, a novel change that has since been studied in Social Psychology.

The generalized impulse hypothesis

A few years later, in 1965, Zajonc takes these results and incorporates them into the theory of social facilitation, explaining through the generalized impulse hypothesis, why in some cases performance improves, while in others it worsens.

According to this researcher, it is the same excitement that causes the presence of a specific audience, which can make the performance improve or worsen, since this excitation can make an organism improve its functioning in the face of easy responses or previously known, but at the same time it becomes anxiety when the tasks are complex, making us perform much worse than we could have done.

Yerkes-Dodson Law

Zajonc bases this conclusion on the Yerkes-Dodson law. It compares the performance of people based on the anxiety they feel and this performance fluctuates, configuring itself in an inverted "U" shape. When anxiety is moderately high, the tasks are done with better results, but if the anxiety is too high or too low, the performance will be worse.

Therefore, when the anxiety that causes us to be observed by others is not too high, since the task to be performed is simple, our performance will be better than when we have no anxiety. While if the anxiety about observation is high, since the task is too complex for us, our performance will be worse.

So, based on this theory, it is best that if by chance a public observes us, we practice and work beforehand to do our best and not get carried away by the expectations others generate for us.

Links of interest

The theory of social facilitation of Allport // blog / the-theory-of-social-facilitation-of-allport /

Social Inhibition //